Universities And Public Policy Research Paper

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All civilizations have needed higher education to train their ruling, priestly, military, bureaucratic, and other service elites. However it was in twelfth-century Europe that an institution recognizable as a university came into being, as a school of higher learning combining teaching and scholarship and characterized by a corporate autonomy and academic freedom. This institution of higher learning has survived in varying forms down to the present day, while evolving a flexibility which has permitted it to serve the needs of enormously different societies in every part of the world. One of those common societal needs which universities in recent years have striven to serve is that of public policy, that can be defined as national policy which is at some level an expression of the public will. Universities have come to interact with the policy process in multiple ways.

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The idea of the practical application of thought to the solution of technical and social problems is virtually timeless and universal. However the direct and total involvement of the corporate universities in social and economic activity is of relatively recent origin. It is identifiable in the later stages of the Industrial Revolution and in the Europe of the nineteenth century, when the direct relevance of scientific and intellectual thought was generally discussed and debated in public. However, it was only after World War Two had dramatized the life-saving significance of knowledge production and application that in the second half of the twentieth century a clear relationship to public policy can be discerned: ‘The systematic attention of universities to social reconstruction and economic innovation to all aspects of economic development—financial, industrial, entrepreneurial, organizational, managerial—its concerns for the urban infrastructure, epidemiology, family welfare and schooling, the enhancement of life chances and the encouragement of vertical and horizontal mobility, are changes occurring within living memory’ (Rothblatt 1995).

1. The Foundations Of The Relationship Between Universities And Public Policy

That issues of social and economic development and policy claimed the attention of the university was a combined consequence of developments within the institution itself and in its external political context. The great nineteenth-century development within the university was the emergence of a new paradigm of the institution, in which research was added to teaching as an equal part of its mission.

Twentieth-century universities have systematically developed structures that allowed them to add the function of generating knowledge to the previous ones of preserving and transmitting it. This was followed by the rapid development of the empirical social sciences as an expanding part of university curricula. Thus research and the production of knowledge emerged as a service to society and the social sciences arrived as a science of society. The potential of both brought the university into a systematic engagement with public policy.

Outside the university in the second half of the twentieth century came the solidification of political systems that derived more fully than before from the wishes of the national public, and required technical and research-based knowledge to satisfy those wishes and to inform policies. National competition to produce new knowledge made universities the key institutions of postindustrial society.

Historically there has always been interplay between what happens inside universities and what goes on in society outside. In the twentieth century this bond became close. The kind of people who work in universities, the type of topics on which they work and the theories, methodologies, and knowledge which they produce all have relevance to the solution of policy problems and improved social wellbeing. As problems became increasingly complex and multidimensional, cross-disciplinary and multidisciplinary concentrations began to develop within universities as a way of responding to the different problems. Specific techniques, such as survey research, manpower planning, opinion polling, rate of return analysis, and systems theory are a few among the techniques and vocabularies of social analysis which universities developed and exported, to societies wishing to digest and utilize knowledge, and to policy-makers anxious for a scientific base to their choices. There was, in the second half of the twentieth century in Europe and America, a social demand from the policy arena for the kind of knowledge, ideas and techniques which trained people within universities tend to produce.

2. Autonomy And Relevance

The extent of this demand created a dual temptation: within the academy for faculty members to direct their work towards perceived policy issues and, outside it, for governments, with the power of the purse, to put pressure on universities to create specific policies backed by suitable academic rationales. The result was a tension between the traditional autonomous role of the university and the demands of partisan government for knowledge that would make policies competitive.

In this situation the critical issue becomes the institutional relationship between the university and the government, which has taken over the formulation of public policy, and the nature of government’s claim on the ideas and people producing them, in a context where the essence of the university ethos is autonomy. In the USA and Europe, where concepts of university autonomy are relatively well established, this autonomy was protected in large measure by a de facto hiving off of the policy function to independent policy research institutions. Often physically close to universities, they are staffed mainly by former university academics who focus on specific policy issues in the company of like-minded scholars.

A dense network of such institutions has grown up in the USA addressing a wide range of policy issues and there is a constant two-way traffic between them and the universities, and between both these and the government and the private sector. With regard to public policy, individuals from universities who had developed strong knowledge and skills in particular policy areas would be recruited for policy positions and consultancies in government. In the USA, Henry Kissinger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Joseph Stiglitz are no more than the better known among the many who took that route in the current era. The critical point here is that they were recruited because of their individual competence and interest, not because of a particular position reflected by their university. Universities as institutions in general try to avoid espousing specific public policy positions and make a virtue of eclecticism. The guiding, albeit unstated, principle by which universities diffuse the tension is that they do not make policies but rather see themselves as enlarging the knowledge base on which policies can be made. The balance is sometimes hard to hold as when, for example, a policy philosophy becomes so strong that it is associated with the institution itself, and, in this connection, the reputation and influence of the so-called ‘Chicago School’ in the 1960s comes to mind. Other forms of encroachment of the policy-making function on university autonomy become controversial when the policy institute and the university appear synonymous at least to the outside eye, or when the university takes government money for training for research related to debatable policy purposes.

3. The Internationalization Of The Social Sciences

Outside the USA and Europe the postwar era of independence in Asia and Africa, and before that in Latin America, led ultimately to the internationalization of social science and hence the university’s role in relation to public policy. First, it became clear that theories derived from industrialization and market behavior did not automatically apply in rural settings, imperfect markets, or centralized and state-controlled economies. Policy-making required more contextual understanding derived from history, anthropology and cultural studies and to develop a theory of problem-solving. The content, theories, and techniques available for policy consideration were enriched. Second, the issue of autonomy and relevance, as encapsulated in the relationship between government and universities, took very different expression in developing countries than in the industrialized west. Instead of a dense array of public policy institutes, policy and research units existed as full and functioning parts of what were to begin with often single national universities. In this period the relationship between university and government was so close that either through a honeymoon sense of post-independence common purpose, i.e., to take control of the foreign-dominated state policy-making apparatus, or because a single party regime did not see much room for university autonomy in the sense of expressing views contrary to national policy, there was little call for independent policy institutes. In many such situations in Africa the universities came close to becoming part of the civil service with a responsibility to develop and present public policy, solve problems, and in so doing be relevant.

The tension between autonomy and relevance comes to the fore and becomes more acute to the extent that the university’s role in producing new knowledge and a workable science of society is supplemented by additional social demand for relevance from universities, where relevance is defined not simply in terms of the institution’s ability to train its students for jobs but also to define and support specific public policies. This tension was contained by a sense of common purpose between government and universities in Africa for a period but, in Latin America, autonomy was an early casualty to conformity and the independent and knowledge-producing function moved out into independent centers which in essence became the source of alternative policies that in Africa during the same period emanated from the universities.

However, with the end of the Cold War, sweeping international forces transformed the situation and created conditions permitting a new kind of relationship between universities and the policy-making process. Economic liberalization, political democratization, and administrative decentralization all created a favorable environment for genuinely autonomous universities. Universities could now redefine their relationship with the policy-making process in a context of autonomy and chose to favor coexistence with separate policy institutes in line with the Western pattern. This move was strongly promoted by the World Bank, anxious as it was to have recognizable partners for policy dialogue in an economic context increasingly dominated by debt ratios. At the end of the twentieth century the pattern worldwide is for research centers, institutes, and think tanks to multiply on the periphery of universities while university faculties and departments are becoming the place for the provision of teaching.

4. Universities And Public Policy In The Twenty-first Century

Universities were never the sole producers of knowledge for policy consideration but they were paramount, and they are perhaps the only institutions with the objectivity and neutrality to train and make provision for the public good dimension of public policy. However, as they enter the twenty-first century they face global forces and technological change which promise a massive transformation and significant reduction in their paramount role. They are being required to function in a larger, more complex environment than existed when they became basic knowledge producers after World War Two. Knowledge production and dissemination, research and teaching will no longer be self-contained activities but will involve integration with a far wider variety of knowledge producers than before, including industry. As always, the universities are being required to respond to external change.

The biggest single source of change in the relationship between universities and the policy process is the emergence of the Internet and the pace of change in information technology. It is influencing enormous changes in the nature of knowledge production, the corresponding role of the university and its relationship to other actors in the informing of public policy. At the same time, globalization and economic pressures of international competition are dissolving the boundaries between national institutions and disciplines and creating widely dispersed knowledge production systems in which universities are a part but have many partners.

Universities have traditionally organized their work into disciplinary science structures. Such structures will retain a privileged place in knowledge production but they will no longer be alone. The disciplinary structure of the production of knowledge is itself changing, as we witness the emergence of a new model in which knowledge is produced in the context of its application rather than in a single theoretical disciplinary structure and is becoming heterogeneous and more socially accountable. Research done in the context of application and global distribution means that ‘science’ cannot remain easily within the confines of a university department or academic center. The emergence of a host of new institutional arrangements linking government, industry, NGOs, and private consultancy groups will arrange knowledge production in new forms of organization that erode the traditional place of the university.

To the extent that research is cutting loose from disciplinary structures and generating knowledge which does not seem to wish to institutionalize itself in university departments and faculties, universities will be forced to pay more attention than before to links with the new institutions and centers where the research is being generated. Coalitions, partnerships, and networks are becoming more important than institutions. In terms of their relation to policy, the old division of labor in which universities focused their knowledge production on government, and industry on private application, is less relevant and the relationships which count are those with the host of diverse and globally scattered institutions which now have a voice and a hand in the production of policy-related knowledge.


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